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Visual effects team tries directing in 'Skyline'

John Horn
In 'Skyline,' unfriendly aliens abduct humans. The film, directed by Colin and Greg Strause, has about 900 visual effects shots.

Visual effects artists Colin and Greg Strause have toppled digital elephants in "300," aged Brad Pitt backward for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and cloned one actor into identical twins for "The Social Network."

The brothers' task on "Skyline" is perhaps more daunting: proving themselves as full-fledged independent filmmakers.

Visual effects designers occasionally graduate into directing jobs. But the 35-year-old Greg and the 33-year-old Colin aren't just migrating from sitting at computer workstations to standing behind cameras. The pair also developed and financed the $10 million "Skyline" themselves, eventually selling it to Relativity Media, whose Rogue Pictures will release the alien attack drama today .

"Skyline" unfolds in and around Marina del Rey, Calif., when a group of young adults awakens in an apartment (Greg's own residence) to discover that Los Angeles is being ransacked by some unfriendly intergalactic visitors. Using a massive, seductive blue light beam, the interlopers suck up countless thousands of locals into their hovering spaceships, where worse things await.

Led by Jarrod (Eric Balfour), the thirtysomethings in the apartment scramble for cover, watching as the U.S. military struggles to drive out the invaders.

The dialogue in the screenplay by Joshua Cordes (who has worked as an animation supervisor for the brothers) and Liam O'Donnell (a visual effects consultant) is unlikely to attract much critical praise. Typical lines include "Oh my God!" "I can't believe this!" "It just doesn't seem real!" "Oh my God, oh my God!" and "Like it or not, this is happening!" (The film is not being shown early to film reviewers.)

But given the film's limited budget and a quick 42 days of principal photography, audiences might be impressed by "Skyline's" elaborate visual tricks, some 900 effects shots that include rocket-firing stealth fighters, crashing helicopters, a nuclear explosion and aliens that look like flying metallic squids.

The film is not the first time the Brothers Strause, as they officially are credited, have directed together. They also made "AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator — Requiem" for 20th Century Fox three years ago, but say they did not enjoy the process, which required them to yield creative control to the studio, or the outcome. The $40 million movie grossed nearly $130 million worldwide, but was trashed by critics. "We were in directors' jail," Greg says. "So we had to do our own jailbreak."

With visual effects jobs increasingly being shipped to countries such as India, the prices dropping for minor special effects work such as wire removal, and several U.S. companies closing their doors, the brothers decided it was exactly the right time to transform Hydraulx, as their effects shop is known, into a mini-studio.

So they bought camera and lighting equipment and built an editing suite. Now, they own pretty much everything necessary to make a movie except a catering truck and a costume shop.

The brothers say they were partially inspired to become filmmakers by some of the many directors they met doing visual effects. "We get to work with the bad and the good," Greg says. "We work on a dozen movies a year, and you sometimes say, 'How is this guy in the business?'"

At the same time, the brothers have not given up serving as an effects vendor for other filmmakers. On a recent afternoon in Hydraulx's Santa Monica offices, several people were working on shots for the upcoming "Gulliver's Travels" for 20th Century Fox and "Battle: Los Angeles," the latter film sparking a minor squabble with Sony Pictures because its story is similar to "Skyline."

"There are reasons to keep both businesses going," Greg says. "But there are advantages to doing our own stuff."